Conversations about Work and Corners

The Greeks use the word work to mean labour as well as to mean trying to pull a fast one. They say the only work left in Greece is the work where you pull a fast one on your neighbour.

Sitting in the lounge at Oliver Tambo Airport after an intercontinental flight is far removed from arriving in Athens and driving into the city. Some stores are flashy and new, like the Zara, while behind it lies a burnt out facade of a building destroyed in riots or set fire by the owners so that they can claim from insurance.

A night in Athens remains, a drive through the ghetto inhabited by Indians and Pakistanis and Chinese, drugs changing hands under furtive glances along dirty side walks with cars parked on and off, crammed and dirty as well. They hover outside windows of stores that hold a foreign nation’s goods, strange in Greece were it not for the fact that Greece had Gypsies before.

After the ghetto we drove out to Paxi, a small village on the Attiki coast between Athens and Corinth. It was filled with young people drinking coffee and cocktails. Some arrived on scooters, some on superbikes and quite a few in Porches. The psarotavernas, the fish tavernas, were empty except for one, where three tables including us enjoyed a meal like we would have had ten years ago for ten times the price. Some of the taverns had been turned into new Russian looking club cafes and were full of designer clad youth.

The next day I left Athens and wondered through Corinth up  to Nemea, through Mycenae, Tolo and Astros and ended up in the village where time seems to have stood still. The road past the house has quietened down, with much less traffic than before. The priest across the corner is never home during the day since his wife died, and in the night the lights are on as he struggles with the insomnia brought on by loneliness. The empty house on the corner remains empty, except for one year when one of the sons used to peep out from shutters even though we continued to park our car on his corner. The remaining corner has a ramshackle house with stables and chicken coups facing our house. She has been moved into a home because of dementia. Our part of the village is made of corners. No where else are there four houses neatly laid out on the corners of a crossroad. Three the same age, with the priest’s new house built in the eighties on the odd corner.

That is about the only sense of order there. All the villagers are working, but not all of it is labour.

Looking into Arcadia from Mycenae

Constantinople 6 May 2011

Here is an answer:

Some Fill With Each Good Rain
There are different wells within your heart.
Some fill with each good rain,
Others are far too deep for that.

In one well
You have just a few precious cups of water,
That “love” is literally something of yourself,
It can grow as slow as a diamond
If it is lost.

Your love
Should never be offered to the mouth of a
Only to someone
Who has the valor and daring
To cut pieces of their soul off with a knife
Then weave them into a blanket
To protect you.

There are different wells within us.
Some fill with each good rain,
Others are far, far too deep
For that.
It’s a long story and it’s not my poem. It belongs to a Sufi poet, Hafiz, from the 14th Century.

I am so confused about going to Istanbul. I have on this same hard drive copies of letters written by my father dated 21 August 1974, my 12th birthday. Co-signed by his friend George Bizos. To the Minister of Foreign Affairs of South Africa, the Ambassador to Pretoria of the United States Government and the Ambassador to Pretoria of Her Majesties Government. All decrying the behaviour of the Turkish government in occupying Cyprus. This shortly after we had returned from Greece. I remember the morning clearly, at Hotel Solon in Tolo, where my father took my brother and told him that he was the head of the family now. My father had been conscripted to fight in the Greek Army. The nation was tuned in to black and white TV with military marches blaring while Turkey invaded Cyprus with American hardware. Nothing has changed, in the week that America assassinated Osama bin Laden. Or murdered him. For what are we if we stoop to the same level as our enemies, if not the Devil himself?

In 2002 I wrote this about a Turkish Takeaway called Cappadocia in Edinburgh. The piece was called The Lost Immigrants:

The story starts with me not being too happy about supporting a Turkish business.  But then again, they were the closest thing to family for me in Scotland. Still, I remember Nicosia and the Red Line that divided families and destroyed lives. It was and it still is sad. But one of the soundest principles by which one can live is never to generalise. It is useful having such basic principles. We always learn our lessons the hard way.

So best not to generalise, even about the Americans. Who can imagine the details of their existence?

Who can imagine the details of anyone’s existence?

So here I sit in  Turkish Airline’s new Airbus en route to Istanbul. Originally to see the Grand Prix, with Caterina trying to open all sorts of doors at the race for us to enjoy. So far the best seems lunch with Mercedes on Saturday.
But the best after some thought is that I am going to what was Constantinople, the seat of Byzantium Christendom, to visit Agia Sophia. And at the same time see feel the streets Hafiz and Rumi walked on, perhaps to find an old book of his poems.

Only to discover that Ataturk banned Sufis. They are now tolerated but are not a force within the confusion of this non-secular nation of Islam.

And so we arrived in a cold and wet Istanbul. I exercised a bit then slept and then we made our way to Istanbul Park, the Grand Prix circuit on the Asian side. The first Formula 1 car that started up and shook out of the garage got me feeling like a little boy with a new bicycle. Pure unbridled joy! I took lots of pictures, mainly panned shots and had a lot of fun. It was cold in the stands.

That night I wrote in my journal:  Wow, I can see why Alexander the Great was enamoured by the Persians. They are a gentle, beautiful, quiet nation,  full of life and joy and passion. Let me try explaining the appreciation:
Turkey works. They have an economy that is still growing at 6 % per annum. The city of Istanbul has a real European capital infrastructure. There are huge suspension bridges over the Bosporus Straits, highways and intersections with automatic toll registration. They have their own airline fleet. Friendly airline staff, even friendly ground staff. An ethos on looking after tourists. Sure, the Turks like to bargain in a shop, or worse in the Grand Bazaar. And there are beggars. And they are Muslim. But the founder of modern day Turkey, in the beginning of the 20th century, outlawed the burka  and adopted the Latin alphabet instead of the Arabic script. The hotel we stayed in was clean, did not smell of smoke and the staff were quiet and unobtrusive as they went about their work. I was walking up one flight of steps from Dom’s room on  the last morning , at about 8am, carrying a small suitcase and one of the cleaners insisted that he carry the bag for me. Genuinely. And was disappointed when I would not let him.

But there is a negative dichotomy. The Turks do not have freedom of speech. There are over 300 journalists and outspoken professionals in detention. Prison really. They have internal strife with the Kurds. They have odd bedfellows in Libya and the USA. They are very chauvinistic.

And they have invaded the northern half of Cyprus. That hurts. The fact that they conquered Constantinople shows their military and organizational superiority. And I wonder at the military and organizational inferiority of my home nation, the Greeks. Still resting on their laurels proclaiming them as the fathers of democracy. Pity they have not realised that has no value in the financial bale out package offered by the European Union.

The Roman empire ruled over the Greeks for a few centuries and the Greeks have got over it. The Macedonians ruled over large tracts of the near and Middle East and they seem to have got over it. The Crusades stole the Lions from Agia Sophia’s towers and left them in St Mark’s Square in Venice. The Ottomans seem to have got over it.

The epitome of a name change, for those of us familiar with South African modern history. Istanbul became the new name for Constantinople when the Ottomans conquered Byzantine in the 1400’s.  Greeks still refer to it as “Konstatinopouli”, somewhat romantically and also bitterly, the way hard liners would refer to Verwoerdburg instead of attending a cricket test at Centurion.

So yes, Turkey is complicated. Even for a South Africa Greek with Cypriot family.

Agia Sofia

Conversations about Paraskevidekatriaphobia

My father was superstitious and spiritual. Sometimes the two became blurred and no logic or belief was evident.

He would never sit at a table with thirteen guests. It is an easy superstition to explain: Judas was the thirteenth guest at the last supper, and it was he who betrayed Jesus Christ and tagged the number thirteen as an ill omen. If you think about it, most of us betray Jesus and should place a thirteen cent coin in our mouths when Charon transports across the Styx. Our forebears in Mantinea would have carefully placed a coin in the mouth of their deceased relatives to pay the ferryman.

My father would always leave a house or building by the same door he entered. In open plan houses with free movement through verandas this would sometimes mean a tour of the house until he found the door he wanted. He did not believe in the mati – the evil eye, that blue beaded teardrop, as other Greeks and Mediterranean’s did, but he did believe that the soul could be possessed. He had a prayer incantation which he would repeat fervently while holding anyone that was possessed to free them of their chains.

Whenever anyone came around to show him a new car, he would always take money out of his pocket and place a few notes in the cubby hole. I still have the original notes he placed in my first Alfa Romeo, transferred from car to car. The envelope is dirty and frayed, but the good luck money lies safely inside. Not that I have had that many new cars, but over 30 years they tend to get worn out and need replacing. Especially Alfa Romeos.

He did not like giving knives as a gift. A knife was a tool that could sever a relationship. So when his good friend Rod Conacher introduced him to Piet Grey, who made beautiful handcrafted knives, he bought one for my brother and me. But in receiving it we had to pay him a token coin to prevent the knife from being used to sever the relationship.

Today’s mouthful of a title is a concatenation of a few Greek words: Paraskevi is Friday, dekatria is thirteen and we all know what phobia means.

Piet Grey's Beautiful Blade


Conversations about Syntagma Square

I was reading a book about a garden in Helekion outside Athens and the horticultural intern mentioned a day trip to Athens and Syntagma Square. That brought back a flood of memories, since it has been well over twenty years since that  I walked on that marble paving.

When we first used to visit Greece and stay in a hotel in the city, we would have an obligatory visit to Syntagma Square to confirm our return air tickets even though we had just arrived for a six week holiday. My father was very particular about confirming return flights. Much as he loved Greece, he did not seem to want to be stuck there. We always thought it would be cool to spend a few more weeks exploring the village or if we were lucky a few more days at the sea, snorkelling, paddling and eating at tavernas. It never happened.  My father was never bumped off a flight, although there were many horror stories about South African Greeks, or worse still, first time travellers from the villages who had never been on a plane and then were bumped off as Olympic Airways was  always overbooked. It helped that my Godfather was a pilot on the national airline. It also helped that my father nurtured the family’s relationship with the lady who worked at the Olympic Airways office tucked into a corner behind grey marble columns on Syntagma Square.

Syntagma means Constitution and the square was formed on the foundation after independence from the Ottomans and specifically after independence  of the Hapsburg advisors to the new king, whose palace on the northern aspect of Syntagma is now the Greek parliament. It is a large oblong square with its length leading toward the sea away from parliament. It is ringed by busy roads and a main road, Amalia, which tries to bisect it at the waist. Many times I imagined the frustrated buses and taxis driving straight through the square to avoid the snarling traffic that blocked the Athenian roads. As slow as the traffic seemed it was still difficult to cross the road from the inner square. Traffic lights were suggestions for drivers and Zebra crossings were distorted strips on the melting tarmac that mirrored the neo-classic columns of the parliament in sympathetic decoration but did nothing to slow the traffic for a mere pedestrian to cross. I soon learnt that it was all about attitude when crossing a road in Athens. Put your foot into the road without hesitation and walk confidently, head up, without so much as looking at the cars threatening to drive over you.

If you stood at the parliament and looked toward the sea, which was invisible for the buildings and smog, at the bottom of the slope lay a few open cafes, where we would be treated to iced lemonades and ice creams as children. Tucked in between the cafes was the American Express office, where we used to change travellers cheques.

When I started going alone as an adult I loved Syntagma. Occasionally I would walked up to the square and see the ominous gathering of the crowds threatening a demonstration and turn and go back. Other times I would sit and drink a frappe and enjoy some people watching. Once I dived into the Olympic Airways office and on a whim booked myself a flight to New York and Los Angeles. That my father knew the staff meant I got a good deal without any questions being asked.

Syntagma is worth a visit. I am going back this year, even if there is a protest.

A photograph of my father's from the sixties in Athens

Conversations about Donkeys

The narrow tar road from Mantinea to Kakouri

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth
Of ancient crooked will:
Starve, scourge, deride me–I am dumb–
I keep my secret still.
Fools! for I also had my hour,
One far, fierce hour and sweet
There was a shout about my ears
And palms before my feet.

A Poem by G.K. Chesterton

I remember this poem from school, when in the sprawling suburbia of Johannesburg I was one of the few children to have ridden a donkey. In those days, the seventies, donkeys outnumbered cars in Kakouri. The drive into the village in the late afternoon invariably paralleled a donkey’s trip back from the fields. Often, in the cool shadows of the avenue of plane trees one would pass a beast of burden carrying an old man and some thick woollen bags of fruit or vegetables, perhaps a bottle of wine. The old man would be tired; having toiled in the summer heat, using a hoe to channel water to the various trees and fields so that the plants could grow, his body ached. Most times the donkey rider would lift his hand in a slow wave, and if he recognised us would smile widely, eyes suddenly alight and alive.

The next morning, even before the sheep were led out of the village, a chorus of donkey braying would wake you, like a stuck water pump squawking into life. It took me a few days as a child, novice to these beasts, to realise that they did in fact make this noise and not “eeh haw” as in the nursery rhymes I learnt in suburbia.

As children we were all treated to a ride on a donkey. The most awkward thing was not the animal itself, soft silky ears and beautiful brown olive eyes gazing into the ancient distance. The most awkward thing was the ancient style wooden saddle. My idea of a saddle was a John Wayne leather beauty complete with lasso rope, not something that looked like an upside down disused rowing boat that belonged to a midget. The wooden frame made the saddle so wide that the extra girth almost dislocated your hips, which is why most people rode their beast’s side saddle, even the men.

Before the motorbikes arrived as cheap and easy transport to the fields for the farmers, we would sometimes ride the donkeys part of the way to the fields. On the way back the beasts would usually carry produce, and we would walk alongside or lead. I remember leading once eating fresh pistachios, popping them into my mouth from the branch, and feeding a few to my friend the donkey.

I can still see the old men riding the donkey back onto the village when we drove down that narrow tar road from Mantinea to Kakouri. What always intrigued me was the old lady that was leading the donkey, while the old man rode on top. Chauvinism is definitely alive in Greece. Or was the woman hoping to crucify her man later?